Audubon Treats Los Angeles to a New Kind of Nature Center
The first LEED v2 Platinum building in the U.S. is off-the-grid, treating its own wastewater and making its own electricity, despite being just ten minutes from downtown Los Angeles.
The Audubon Center at Debs Park outside Los Angeles has earned a Platinum rating under version 2 of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED® Rating System. When the certification was announced in December 2003, the Audubon Center became the first building in the U.S.—and the second in the world (see EBN Vol. 12, No. 12)—to achieve this distinction. The Center is expected to use 70% less water than a conventional facility—and treat all of its wastewater on-site. It is expected to use only 5 kWh/ft2 (54 kWh/m2) of energy each year—and generate all of it on-site. More than 50% of the building materials were manufactured locally, and more than 97% of the construction debris was reused or recycled.
The 5,000 ft 2 (465 m2) single-story building, designed by Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis (EHDD) of San Francisco, is the product of over six years of intensive community outreach, planning, and construction, and it represents a new philosophy for Audubon. To further its work conserving and restoring natural ecosystems, the nonprofit organization is aiming to foster passion for the natural world from within “urban and underserved areas,” according to Audubon, “where quality experiences in nature can be hard to come by.” The Audubon Center at Debs Park is located just ten minutes from downtown Los Angeles, along one of the busiest highways in the city; over 50,000 children, most of them Latino, live within two miles (3 km) of the Center.
The nature center is located in the Ernest E. Debs Regional Park, a 282-acre (114 ha) “urban wilderness” owned by the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. Audubon is leasing 17 acres (7 ha) within the Park for the nature center and its surrounding landscape; Audubon has agreed to pay the City $1.00 each year for 50 years. “The building provides a transition for visitors coming from a heavy urban environment to nature and the wild,” says Hernando Miranda, president of Soltierra, LLC, who was responsible for the project’s adherence to the LEED Rating System and its documentation. (Initially, Miranda’s work on the project was done through CTG Energetics, Inc., but he left CTG midway through the project to form his own company; CTG remained involved and is commissioning the building.)
The decision to pursue green design was made before the building location on the site was selected and before any conceptual architectural plans were begun. When the design team came on board, Miranda told EBN, “they all knew we were pursuing LEED and looking for their help.” The decision to pursue a Platinum rating was made after the project team was selected and after a donor contributed money earmarked to help the project meet Platinum. The clincher in the decision came along with the cost estimates for connecting to city utilities. Since the Center is located more than a quarter-mile from the nearest electricity and sewer lines, on-site wastewater treatment and electricity generation would cost only a slight premium. And, they would lend themselves to a high LEED rating. The team decided to go for Platinum in December 2001, “and then we never went back,” said EHDD’s project manager Glennis Briggs. “We were frightened to death for two years,” she told EBN, until the U.S. Green Building Council confirmed their accomplishment.
Even with a knowledgeable and committed team, however, “it took a tremendous amount of effort to keep the project on the Platinum track,” according to Miranda. “It took a lot more research work into alternative design solutions and products than was originally expected.” Briggs agrees that the largest added cost went to researching green materials and systems but noted that the entire team benefited: “Now we can apply that knowledge to other projects.”
Duygu Erten, project manager at Bovis Lend Lease, the owner’s representative for construction, told EBN that the total project cost, including extensive site work and landscaping, was around $5.5 million. The design and construction of the building itself cost about $2.5 million, or $371/ft2 ($3,990/m2), adjusted to include some partially enclosed spaces. She says the high cost is due more to the location and qualities of the site than to the project’s green design. “My figures show the building is 5 to 7% more expensive than a regular building because it is Platinum,” she added.
The Audubon Society decided to build on the most degraded land in Debs Park. An asphalt road, partially buried on the site, was used as a soapbox derby racetrack decades ago, according to Miranda, and the nearby hillside was a playground for arsonists and off-road motorcyclists. Audubon is now working to restore the site and nearby hillside and trails, removing invasive species and planting native and adaptive plants. Both a conceptual design of the building and the entire landscape were designed by Campbell and Campbell, Inc., based in Santa Monica. An entry courtyard and interior courtyard, both featuring recirculating fountains, provide meeting space outside the building. A Children’s Garden explains the natural history of the area using plantings to highlight the changing seasons, and an interpretive trail system highlights the four biomes of Debs Park: Coastal Sage Scrub, Oak Sycamore Woodland, Walnut Savannah, and Riparian.
The Center achieved all five LEED points for water efficiency. Once the landscaping matures, no water will be needed for irrigation. Dual-flush toilets (from Caroma USA, Inc., see EBN Vol. 13, No. 1) help keep indoor water use low. Although the team originally intended to use water-free urinals, building codes stymied that plan, at least for the time being, Briggs told EBN. A wastewater treatment system (an AdvanTex system from Orenco Systems, Inc., see EBN Vol. 3, No. 2) treats all of the Center’s wastewater on-site. According to Cameron Church, of Environmental Planning and Design, who engineered the wastewater treatment system, the building is plumbed to allow reuse of treated graywater and blackwater for toilet flushing, but the project is still awaiting permission from the State Department of Health Services. “The water is looking pretty clean, so far,” Church told EBN, “but we still need to quantify if it’s clean enough for ‘unrestricted reuse’ as defined by the State.” Until then (hopefully within the year), all of the treated wastewater will recharge the soil through an anaerobic subsurface dispersion field.
The design team was very conscious of material selection, preferring materials that were manufactured and harvested locally (including FSC-certified redwood from Big Creek Lumber in Davenport, California, landscape plantings, and concrete), that contain recycled materials (including rebar from Tamco Steel, ceramic tile, concrete, and mineral-fiber insulation), that are biobased (such as wheatboard and sunflower board from Phenix Biocomposites, LLC, sisal carpet from Design Materials, Inc., and Marmoleum flooring from Forbo Linoleum, Inc.), and that are low-emitting (including MDF from SierraPine, Ltd., carpet, paint, adhesives, and sealants). More than half of the wood used in the facility was certified according to FSC standards.
The Audubon Center at Debs Park is entirely independent of the electrical grid, so the Center derives all of its heating, cooling, lighting, and other electrical needs from solar power produced on the building’s roof. “We went through two photovoltaic design-builders before we were able to find one that met the requirement that ‘It all has to fit on the roof,’” said Miranda. More than 200 polycrystalline PV panels (from Kyocera Solar, Inc.) produce up to 22 kWh of energy in full sun, according to Briggs, and a battery system (Absolyte batteries from GNB Industrial Power, developed in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories specifically for PV applications) can operate the Center for four or five days without direct sun. The solar-powered heating and cooling systems will be used only when necessary. A ten-ton absorption chiller (from Yazaki Energy Systems, Inc.), driven by solar hot water panels (X-Therm evacuated heat pipe solar thermal collectors from Beijing Sunda Solar Technology Co. Ltd.), provides mechanical cooling. Solar panels heat water for domestic uses.
The Center makes the solar systems viable by keeping energy demand low; the building is expected to use about 25,000 kWh of energy each year (around 5 kWh/ft2 or 54 kWh/m2), for everything, including outdoor lighting and the wastewater treatment system. The building earned all ten LEED points for optimizing energy performance and an innovation point for “100% energy cost budget reduction.” The only power used to heat and cool the building is for pumps and electrical controls, according to Miranda. Thermal mass in the form of exposed concrete walls and floors, along with high windows that open to flush out heat, moderate temperatures throughout the building. Operable windows allow for natural ventilation, and efficient fans (Vari-Cyclone fans from RCH Fan Works) are used when breezes are inadequate.
Even with the building’s outstanding efficiency, energy is tight. According to Briggs, the greatest technical challenge of the project was to set an energy budget and stick to it. “We have to limit the number of copies made per day and also place a budget on outdoor power-tool use,” Miranda told EBN. Because the building’s cooling energy use is so low, winter is its critical energy period; the PV system generates just enough power to meet demand in December and about 40% more than is required during the summer.
The building has the unique capability to shed energy loads as needed. If the batteries begin to run low, employees manually turn off low-priority users of energy, such as the outdoor fountain pumps. As the batteries lose more power, higher-priority loads will automatically be shut off. Even after medium loads have been shed, the Center can remain open, though visitors and especially staff will notice a difference. Briggs pointed out that load shedding is most likely to occur in rainy, winter weather, when fewer people are likely to visit the Center. Emergency loads, such as exit lighting and the security system, will never shut off.
CTG Energetics, of Irvine, California, was in charge of initial LEED design, energy analysis, and commissioning. According to project manager Steven Long, the initial commissioning process is now about 80% complete. “It’s challenging,” he said of the process, “but we knew it would be going into it.” Since the Center includes systems that haven’t often been used in this way or in this combination, Long explained, the project required a higher level of coordination among the design team, contractors, and subcontractors than is typical. “Every day was a learning experience,” said Kim Hosken, also of CTG. “It’s been just an amazing experience for everyone involved.” Briggs describes the process as a “labor of love,” telling EBN that everyone on the team “opened a vein and bled for the project.”
“The real focus of the project is environmental education,” stresses Miranda. The Center offers free educational programs for visitors of all ages. “Evening programs like Family Full Moon Hikes, or ‘Bugs Night Out’ are the biggest hit of all,” according to Elsa Lopez, Director of the Audubon Center at Debs Park. She says most visitors are surprised to learn that the building is off-grid, and many want to know how they can have solar energy at their homes. “The youth are interested in what type of education they would need to work in a field related to green building,” she said. The Center is planning a sustainable information fair for April as part of its Earth Day celebrations.
While the Debs Park Center is a triumph in its own right, a more exciting development is just getting started: Over the next 20 years, the National Audubon Society plans to build a thousand new facilities in urban settings across the country. And, through a Green Buildings Resolution established by its board of directors, Audubon has committed to designing and constructing each one sustainably. Although the organization has stopped short of committing future buildings to the LEED Platinum standard, Linda Vanderveer, Audubon’s media manager, assured EBN that “any new centers that we create will strive to follow the green example set by Debs Park. We are committed to reducing our footprint on the planet wherever we go.”